Jessie was born in Fredericksville, Camden County, New Jersey, on April 27, 1882. although she was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Redmon Fauset, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Annie Seamon Fauset. When she was just a child, her mother passed away and her father remarried. Jessie’s father was not wealthy, but he instilled in all his children the great importance of education.
As a youngster, Jessie attended the highly-respected Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she may have been the only African American student in her class. Once she graduated, she wanted to enroll at prestigious Bryn Mawr College. Unfortunately, the institution was reluctant to accept its first African American student, and instead offered to assist Jessie in acquiring a scholarship to Cornell University. Jessie excelled at Cornell, and so she was invited to join the distinguished academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her bachelors’s degree in classical languages in 1905, and later earned her master’s degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania.
Even though Jessie had earned a superior college education, her race prevented her from gaining a job as a teacher in Philadelphia. Instead, she accepted teaching positions first in Baltimore, Maryland, and then in Washington, DC, where she taught French and Latin at Dunbar High School.
In 1912, while still teaching, Jessie began to submit reviews, essays, poems, and short stories to The Crisis, a magazine for African American readers founded and edited by author and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. Seven years later, DuBois persuaded the talented educator to become the publication’s literary editor. Jessie did this work during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of prolific artistic output within the black community. As the magazine’s editor, Jessie encouraged and influenced a number of up-and-coming writers, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay. She also continued to write her own pieces for the magazine. In addition to her work at The Crisis, Jessie also served as co-editor for The Brownies’ Book, which was published monthly from 1920 to 1921. The goal of the publication was to teach African American children about their heritage, information the former educator had fervently wished for throughout her own childhood.
After reading an inaccurate depiction of African Americans in a book written by a white author, Jessie became inspired to write her own novel. Her first book, There Is Confusion (1924), portrayed black characters in a middle-class setting. It was an unusual choice for the time, which made it more difficult for Jessie to find a publisher. In 1926, Jessie left her position at The Crisis in 1926 and looked for work in the publishing field, even offering to work from home so that her race wouldn’t be a barrier. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find enough work to support herself.
To make ends meet, Jessie returned to teaching, accepting a position at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City. James Baldwin, the acclaimed African American novelist and playwright, may have been one of her students there. Jessie was employed in the New York school system until 1944. During her New York years, Jessie wrote three more novels: Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931), and Comedy: American Style (1933). Jessie’s primarily upper-class characters continued to deal with the themes of prejudice, limited opportunities, and cultural compromises. Because her last two novels were less successful than her previous works, Jessie’s extensive writing output decreased.
In 1929, Jessie fell in love and married businessman Herbert Harris. She was 47 years old at the time. The couple made their home in Montclair, New Jersey. They lived there until 1958, when Herbert passed away. After her husband’s death, Jessie returned to Philadelphia, where she died on April 30, 1961, a victim of heart disease. She was 79 years old.